E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE VOICE IN THE FOG
Author of The Man on the Box, Hearts and Masks, The Million Dollar Mystery, etc.
With Illustrations by A. B. Wenzell
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers The Bobbs-Merrill Company
[Frontispiece: Kitty Killigrew]
CAV. GIOVANNI PICCININI
IN MEMORY OF MANY HAPPY FLORENTINE DAYS
THE VOICE IN THE FOG
A London fog, solid, substantial, yellow as an old dog's tooth or a jaundiced eye. You could not look through it, nor yet gaze up and down it, nor over it; and you only thought you saw it. The eye became impotent, untrustworthy; all senses lay fallow except that of touch; the skin alone conveyed to you with promptness and no incertitude that this thing had substance. You could feel it; you could open and shut your hands and sense it on your palms, and it penetrated your clothes and beaded your spectacles and rings and bracelets and shoe-buckles. It was nightmare, bereft of its pillows, grown somnambulistic; and London became the antechamber to Hades, lackeyed by idle dreams and peopled by mistakes.
There is something about this species of fog unlike any other in the world. It sticks. You will find certain English cousins of yours, as far away from London as Hong-Kong, who are still wrapt up snugly in it. Happy he afflicted with strabismus, for only he can see his nose before his face. In the daytime you become a fish, to wriggle over the ocean's floor amid strange flora and fauna, such as ash-cans and lamp-posts and venders' carts and cab-horses and sandwich-men. But at night you are neither fish, bird nor beast.
The night was May thirteenth; never mind the year; the date should suffice: and a Walpurgis night, if you please, without any Mendelssohn to interpret it.
That happy line of Milton's—"Pandemonium, the high capital of Satan and his peers"—fell upon London like Elijah's mantle. Confusion and his cohort of synonyms (why not?) raged up and down thoroughfare and side-street and alley, east and west, danced before palace and tenement alike: all to the vast amusement of the gods, to the mild annoyance of the half-gods (in Mayfair), and to the complete rout of all mortals a-foot or a-cab. Imagine: militant suffragettes trying to set fire to the prime minister's mansion, Siegfried being sung at the opera, and a yellow London fog!
The press about Covent Garden was a mathematical problem over which Euclid would have shed bitter tears and hastily retired to his arbors and citron tables. Thirty years previous (to the thirteenth of May, not Euclid) some benighted beggar invented the Chinese puzzle; and tonight, many a frantic policeman would have preferred it, sitting with the scullery maid and the pantry near by. Simple matter to shift about little blocks of wood with the tip of one's finger; but cabs and carriages and automobiles, each driver anxious to get out ahead of his neighbor!—not to mention the shouting and the din and discord of horns and whistles and sirens and rumbling engines!
"It's hard luck," said Crawford, sympathetically. "It will be half an hour before they get this tangle straightened out."
"I shouldn't mind, Jim, if it weren't for Kitty," replied his wife. "I am worried about her."
"Well, I simply could not drag her into this coupe and get into hers myself. She's a heady little lady, if you want to know. As it is, she'll get back to the hotel quicker than we shall. Her cab is five up. If you wish, I'll take a look in and see if she's all right."
"Please do;" and she smiled at him, lovely, enchanting.
"You're the most beautiful woman in all this world!"
Click! The light went out. There was a smothered laugh; and when the light flared up again, the aigrette in her copper-beech hair was all askew.
"If anybody saw us!"—secretly pleased and delighted, as any woman would have been who possessed a husband who was her lover all his waking hours.
"What! in this fog? And a lot I'd care if they did. Now, don't stir till I come back; and above all, keep the light on."
"And hurry right back; I'm getting lonesome already."
He stepped out of the coupe. Harlequin, and Colombine, and Humpty-Dumpty; shapes which came out of nowhere and instantly vanished into nothing, for all the world like the absurd pantomimes of his boyhood days. He kept close to the curb, scrutinizing the numbers as he went along. Never had he seen such a fog. Two paces away from the curb a headlight became an effulgence. Indeed, there were a thousand lights jammed in the street, and the fog above absorbed the radiance, giving the scene a touch of Brocken. All that was needed was a witch on a broomstick. He counted five vehicles, and stopped. The door-window was down.
"Miss Killigrew?" he said.
"Yes. Is anything wrong?"
"No. Just wanted to see if you were all right. Better let me take your place and you ride with Mrs. Crawford."
"Good of you; but you've had enough trouble. I shall stay right here."
"Where's your light?"
"The globe is broken. I'd rather be in the dark. Its fun to look about. I never saw anything to equal it."
"Not very cheerful. We'll be held up at least half an hour. You are not afraid?"
"What, I?" She laughed. "Why should I be afraid? The wait will not matter. But the truth is, I'm worried about mother. She would go to that suffragette meeting; and I understand they have tried to burn up the prime minister's house."
"Fine chance! But don't you worry. Your mother's a sensible woman. She'll get back to the hotel, if she isn't there already."
"I wish she had not gone. Father will be tearing his hair and twigging the whole Savoy force by the ears."
Crawford smiled. Readily enough he could conjure up the picture of Mr. Killigrew, short, thick-set, energetic, raging back and forth in the lobby, offering to buy taxicabs outright, the hotel, and finally the city of London itself; typically money-mad American that he was. Crawford wanted to laugh, but he compromised by saying: "He must be very careful of that hair of his; he hasn't much left."
"And he pulls out a good deal of it on my account. Poor dad! Why in the world should I marry a title?"
"Mrs. Crawford was beautiful tonight. There wasn't a beauty at the opera to compare with her. Royalties are frumps, aren't they? And that ruby! I don't see how she dares wear it!"
"I am not particularly fond of it; but it's a fad of hers. She likes to wear it on state occasions. I have often wondered if it is really the Nana Sahib's ruby, as her uncle claimed. Driver, the Savoy, and remember it carefully; the Savoy."
"Yes, sir; I understand, sir. But we'll all be some time, sir. Collision forward is what holds us, sir."
Alone again, Kitty Killigrew leaned back, thinking of the man who had just left her and of his beautiful wife. If only she might some day have a romance like theirs! Presently she peered out of the off-window. A brood of Siegfried-dragons prowled about, now going forward a little, now swerving, now pausing; lurid eyes and threatening growls.
Once upon a time, in her pigtail days, when her father was going to be rich and was only half-way between the beginning and the end of his ambition, Kitty had gone to a tent-circus. Among other things she had looked wonderingly into the dim, blurry glass-tank of the "human fish," who was at that moment busy selling photographs of himself. To-night, in searching for comparisons, this old forgotten picture recurred to her mind; blithely memory brought it forth and threw it upon the screen. All London had become a glass-tank, filled with human pollywogs.
She did not want to marry a title; she did not want to marry money; she did not want to marry at all. Poor kindly dad, who believed that she could be made happy only by marrying a title. As if she was not as happy now as she was ever destined to be!
Voices. Two men were speaking near the curb-door. She turned her head involuntarily in this direction. There were no lights in the frontage before which stood her cab, which intervened between the Brocken haze in the street, throwing a square of Stygian shadow against the fog, with right and left angles of aureola. She could distinguish no shapes.
"Cheer up, old top; you're in hard luck."
"I'm a bally ass."
"No, no; only a ripping good sporty game all the way through."
Oddly enough, Kitty sensed the irony. She wondered if the speaker's companion did.
"Well, a wager's a wager."
"And you're the last chap to welch a square bet. What's the odds? My word, I didn't urge you to change the stakes."
The voice was young and pleasant; and Kitty was sure that the owner's face was even as pleasant as his voice. What had he wagered and lost?
"If you're really hard pressed. . . ."
"Hard pressed! Man, I've nothing in God's world but two guineas, six."
"Oh, I say now!"
"Its the truth."
"If a fiver will help you. . . ."
"Thanks. A wager's a wager. I've lost. I was a bally fool to play cards. Deserve what I got. Six months; that's the agreement. A madman's wager; but I'll stick."
"Six months; twelve o'clock, midnight, November thirteenth. It's the date, old boy; that's what hoodooed you, as the Americans say."
Kitty wasn't sure that the speaker was English; if he was, he had lost the insular significance of his vowels. Still, it was, in its way, as pleasant a voice as the other's. There was no doubt about the younger man; he was English to the core, English in his love of chance, English in his loyalty to his word; stupidly English. That he was the younger was a trifling matter to deduce: no young man ever led his elder into mischief, harmful or innocuous.
"Six months. It's a joke, my boy; a great big laugh for you and me, when there's nothing left in life but toddies and churchwardens. Six months."
"I dare say I can hang on till that time is over. Well, good night! No letters, no addresses."
"Exact terms. Six months from date I'll be cooling my heels in your ante-room."
"Cavenaugh, if it's anything else except a joke. . . ."
"Oh, rot! It was your suggestion. I tell you, it's a lark, nothing more. A gentleman's word."
"I'll start for my diggings."
"Ride home with me; my cab's here somewhere."
"No, thanks. I've got a little thinking to do and prefer to be alone. Good night."
"And good luck go with you. Deuce take it, if you feel so badly. . . ."
There was no reply; and Kitty decided that the younger man had gone on. Silence; or rather, she no longer heard the speakers. Then a low chuckle came to her and this chuckle broadened into ironic laughter; and she knew that Mephisto was abroad. What had been the wager; and what was the meaning of the six months? It is instinctive in woman to interpret the human voice correctly, especially when the eyes are not distracted by physical presentations. This man outside, whoever and whatever he was, deep in her heart Kitty knew that he was not going to play fair. What a disappointing world it was!—to set these human voices ringing in her ears, and then to take them out of her life forever!
Still the din of horns and whistles and sirens, still the shouting. Would they never move on? She was hungry. She wanted to get back to the hotel, to learn what had happened to her mother. Militant suffragettes, indeed! A pack of mad witches, who left their brooms behind kitchen doors when they ought to be wielding them about dusty corners. Woman never won anything by using brickbats and torches: which proved on the face of it that these militants were inefficient, irresponsible, and unlearned in history. Poor simpletons! Had not theirs always been the power behind the throne? What more did they want?
Her cogitations were peculiarly interrupted. The door opened, and a man plumped down beside her.
"Enid, it looks as if we'd never get out of this hole. Have you got your collar up?"
Numb and terrified, Kitty felt the man's hands fumbling about her neck.
"Where's your sable stole? You women beat the very devil for thoughtlessness. A quid to a farthing, you've left it in the box, and I'll have to go back for it, providing they'll let me in. And it's midnight, if a minute."
Pressing herself tightly into her corner, Kitty managed to gasp: "My name is not Enid, sir. You have mistaken your carriage."
"What? Good heavens!" Almost instantly a match sparkled and flared. His eyes, screened behind his hand, palm outward (a perfectly natural action, yet nicely calculated), beheld a pretty, charming face, large Irish blue eyes (a bit startled at this moment), and a head of hair as shiny-black as polished Chinese blackwood. The match, still burning, curved like a falling star through the window. "A thousand pardons, madam! Very stupid of me. Quite evident that I am lost. I beg your pardon again, and hope I have not annoyed you."
He was gone before she could form any retort. Where had she heard that voice before? With a little shudder—due to the thought of those cold strange fingers feeling about her throat—her hands went up. Instantly she cried aloud in dismay. Her sapphires! They had vanished!
Daniel Killigrew, of Killigrew and Company (sugar, coffee and spices), was in a towering rage; at least, he towered one inch above his normal height, which was five feet six. Like an animal recently taken in captivity he trotted back and forth through the corridors, in and out of the office, to and from the several entrances, blowing the while like a grampus. All he could get out of these infernally stupid beings was "Really, sir!" He couldn't get a cab, he couldn't get a motor, he couldn't get anything. Manager, head-clerk, porter, doorman and page, he told them, one and all, what a dotty old spoof of a country they lived in; that they were all dead-alive persons, fit to be neither under nor above earth; that they wouldn't be one-two in a race with January molasses—"Treacle, I believe you call it here!" And what did they say to this scathing arraignment? Yes, what did they say? "Really, sir!" He knew and hoped it would happen: if ever Germany started war, it would be over before these Britishers made up their minds that there was a war. A hundred years ago they had beaten Napoleon (with the assistance of Spain, Austria, Germany and Russia), and were now resting.
Quarter to one, and neither wife nor daughter; outside there, somewhere in the fog; and he could not go to them. It was maddening. Molly might be arrested and Kitty lost. Served him right; he should have put his foot down. The idea of Molly being allowed to go with those rattle-pated women! Suffragettes! A "Bah!" exploded with a loud report. Hereafter he would show who voted in the Killigrew family. Poor man! He was made of that unhappy mental timber which agrees thoughtlessly to a proposition for the sake of peace and then regrets it in the name of war. His wife and daughter twisted him round their little fingers and then hunted cover when he found out what they had done.
He went out again to the main entrance and smoked himself headachy. He hated London. He had always hated it in theory, now he hated it in fact. He hated tea, buttered muffins, marmalade, jam, toast, cricket, box hedges three hundred years old, ruins, and the checkless baggage system, the wet blankets called newspapers. All the racial hatred of his forebears (Tipperary born) surged hot and wrathful in his veins. At the drop of a hat he would have gone to war, individually, with all England. "Really, sir!" Nothing but that, when he was dying of anxiety!
A taxicab drew up before the canopy. He knew it was a taxicab because he could hear the sound of the panting engine. The curb-end of the canopy was curtained by the abominable fog. Mistily a forlorn figure emerged. The doorman started leisurely toward this figure. Killigrew pushed him aside violently. Molly, with her hat gone, her hair awry, her dress torn, her gloves ragged, her eyes puffed! He sprang toward her, filled with Berserker rage. Who had dared.
"Give the man five pounds," she whispered. "I promised it."
"Five. . . ."
"Give it to him! Good heavens, do I look as if I were joking? Pay him, pay him!"
Killigrew counted out five sovereigns, perhaps six, he was not sure. The chauffeur swooped them up, and set off.
"Molly Killigrew. . . ."
"Not a word till I get to the rooms. Hurry! Daniel, if you say anything I shall fall down!"
He led her to the lift. Curious glances followed, but these signified nothing. On a night such as this was there would be any number of accidents. Once in the living-room of the luxurious suite, Mrs. Killigrew staggered over to the divan and tumbled down upon it. She began to cry hysterically.
"Molly, old girl! Molly!" He put his arm tenderly across her heaving shoulders and kneeled. His old girl! Love crowded out all other thoughts. Money-mad he might be, but he never forgot that Molly had once fried his meat and peeled his potatoes and darned his socks. "Molly, what has happened? Who did this? Tell me, and I'll kill him!"
"Dan, when they started up the street for the prime minister's house, I could not get out of the crowd. I was afraid to. It was so foggy you had to follow the torches. I did not know what they were about till the police rushed us. One grabbed me, but I got away." All this between sobs. "Dan, I don't want to be a suffragette." Sob. "I don't want to vote." Sob.
And for the first time that night Killigrew smiled.
He started to his feet. "She hasn't got back from the opera yet. She'll be the death of me, one of these fine days. You know her. Like as not she's stepped out of her cab to see what's going on, and has lost herself."
"But the Crawfords were with her."
"Would that make any difference with Kitty if she wanted to get out? I told her not to wear any jewels, but she wouldn't mind me. She never does. I haven't any authority except in my offices. You and Kitty. . . ."
"All right; I won't. But, all the same, you and the girl need checking."
"Daniel, it was only because I wanted something to occupy myself with. It's no fun for me to sit still in my house and watch everybody else work. The butler orders the meals, the housekeeper takes charge of the linen, the footman the carriages. Why, I can't find a button to sew on anything any more. I only wanted something to do."
Killigrew did not smile this time. Here was the whole matter in a nutshell: she wanted something to do. And there were thousands of others just like her. Man-like, he forgot that women needed something more than money and attention from an army of servants. He had his offices, his stock-ticker, his warfare. Not because she wanted to vote, but because she wanted and needed something to do.
"Molly, old girl, I begin to see. I'm going to finance a home-bureau of charity. I mean it. Fifty thousand the year to do with as you like. No hospitals, churches, heathen; but the needy and deserving near by. You can send boys to college and girls to schools; and Kitty'll be glad to be your lieutenant. I never had a college education. Not that I ever needed it,"—with sudden truculence in his tone. "But it might be a good thing for some of the rising generations in my tenements. I'll leave the choice to you. And when it comes to voting, why, tell me which way to vote, and I'll do it. I'll be a bull moose, if you say so."
"You're the kindest man in the world, Dan, and I'm an old fool of a woman!"
Kitty burst into the room, star-eyed, pale. "Mother!" She sped to her mother's side. "Oh, I felt it in my bones that something was going to happen!"
"Think of it, Kitty dear; your mother, fighting with a policeman! Oh, it was frightful!"
"Never mind, mumsy," Kitty soothed. She rang for the maid, a thing her father had not thought to do. And when her mother was snug in bed, her head in cooling bandages, her face and hands bathed in refreshing cologne, Kitty returned to her father, "Dad, you mustn't say a word to mother about it, but I've been robbed."
"My necklace. And I could not identify the thief if he stood before me this very minute. The interior light was out of order. He entered, pretending he had made a mistake. He called me Enid and told me to put up my collar; touched my neck with his hands. I was so astonished that I could not move. Finally I managed to explain that he had made a mistake. He apologized and got out; and it is quite evident that the necklace went with him."
"Can't you remember the least thing about him?"
"Nothing, absolutely nothing."
"Where were the Crawfords?"
"I did not wait to see them. My cab was ahead of theirs. What shall we do?"
"Notify the police; it's all we can do. They cost me an even ten thousand, Kitty. And I told you not to wear them on a night like this. I'm discouraged. I want to get out of this blasted country. I'm hoodooed." Killigrew walked the floor. He took out a cigar, eyed it thoughtfully, and returned it to his pocket. "Because they happen to be born in this smoke, they think the way they do things is the last word on the subject. I'd like to show them."
"Dad,"—with a bit of a smile,—"I know what the trouble is. You want to go home."
"And that's the truth. This is the first trip abroad I ever took with you and your mother, and it's going to be the last. I can't live out of my element, which is hurry and bustle and getting things done quickly. I'm a fish out of water. I want to go home; I want to see the Giants wallop the Cubs; and I want my two-weeks' bass fishing. But I'll hang on till the end of June as I promised. Ten thousand in sapphires you couldn't match in a hundred years, and Molly coming in banged up like a prize-fighter! . . . Someone at the door."
It proved to be Crawford.
"Glad you got back safely," he said relievedly.
"Had her necklace stolen," replied Killigrew briefly.
"You don't mean to say. . . ."
Kitty recounted her amazing adventure.
"And my wife's ruby is gone." Crawford made the disclosure simply. He was a quiet man; he had learned the futility of gestures, of wasting words in lamentation.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Kitty.
"The windows of the cab were down. I stood outside, smoking to pass the time. Suddenly I heard Mrs. Crawford cry out. A hand had reached in from the off side, clutched the pendant, twisted it off, and was gone. All quicker than I can tell it. I tried to give chase, but it was utter folly. I couldn't see anything two feet away. Mrs. Crawford is a bit knocked up over it. Rather sinister stone, if its history is a true one: the Nana Sahib's ruby, you know. For the jewel itself I don't care. I never liked to see her wear it."
Killigrew threw up his hands. "And this is the London you've been bragging about to me! How much was the ruby worth?"
"Don't know; nobody does. It's one of those jewels you can't set a price on. He will not be able to dispose of it in its present shape. He'll break it up and sell the pieces, and that's the shame of it. Think of the infernal cleverness of the man! Two or three hundred vehicles stalled in the street, fog so thick you couldn't see your hand before your face. Simple game for a man with ready wit. And the police busy at the two ends of the block, trying to straighten out the tangle. Mrs. Crawford says that the hand was white, slender and well kept. It came in swiftly and accurately. The man had been watching and waiting. She was so unprepared for the act that she didn't even try to catch the hand. I have notified Scotland Yard. But you can't hunt down a hand. I'm willing to wager that we'll neither of us ever see the gems again."
"He must have come directly from your carriage to mine," said Kitty. "I am heart-broken."
"One of the tricks of fate. Glad you got back all right. We were mightily worried. Come over across the hall at nine to-morrow, all of you, for breakfast. Don't fuss up. And we'll talk over the affair and plan what's to be done. Good night."
"I like that young man," declared Killigrew emphatically. "He's the real article. American to the backbone; a millionaire who doesn't splurge. Well," sighing regretfully, "he was born to it, and I had to dig for mine. But I can't get it through my head why he wants to excavate mummies when he could dig up potatoes with some profit."
"Dad, find me an earl or a duke like Mr. Crawford, and I'll marry him just as fast as you like."
"Kittibudget, I'm not so strong for dukes as I was. Your mother will have a black eye in the morning, or I don't know a shindy when I see it. Now, hike off to bed. I'm all in."
"You poor old dad! I worry you to death."
She threw her lovely arms about his neck and kissed him.
"Well, you're worth it. Kitty, I've had a jolt to-night. You marry whom you blame please. I've been doing some tall thinking. Make your own romance, duke or dry-goods clerk. You'd never hook up with anything that wasn't a man. You're Irish. If he happens to be made, all well and good; if not, why, I'll undertake to make him. And that's a bargain. I don't want any alimony money in the Killigrew family."
She kissed him again and went into her bedroom. Kind-hearted, impulsive old dad! In a week's time he would forget all about this heart-to-heart talk, and shoo away every male who hadn't a title or a million, or who wasn't due to fall heir to one or the other. Nevertheless, she had long since made up her mind to build her own romance. That was her right, and she did not propose to surrender it to anybody. Her weary head on the pillow, she thought of the voices in the fog. "A wager's a wager."
The next morning the fog was not quite so thick; that is, in places there were holes and punctures. You saw a man's face and torso, but neither hat nor legs. Again, you saw the top of a cab bowling along, but no horse: phantasmally.
Breakfast in Crawford's suite was merry enough. Misfortune was turned into jest. At least, they made a fine show of it; which is characteristic of people who bow to the inevitable whenever confronted by it. Crawford was passing his cigars, when a page was announced. The boy entered briskly, carrying a tray upon which reposed a small package.
"By special messenger, sir. It was thought you might be liking to have it at once, sir." The page pocketed the shilling politely and departed.
"That's the first bit of live work I've seen anybody do in this hotel," commented Killigrew, striking a match.
"I have stopped here often," said Crawford, "and they are familiar with my wishes. Excuse me till I see what this is."
The quartet at the table began chatting again, about the fog, what they intended doing in Paris, sunshiny Paris. By and by Crawford came over quietly and laid something on the table before his wife's plate.
It was the Nana Sahib's ruby, so-called.
That same morning, at eleven precisely (when an insolent west wind sprang up and tore the fog into ribbons and scarves and finally blew it into smithereens, channelward) there stood before the windows of a famous haberdashery in the Strand a young man, twenty-four years of age, typically English, beardless, hair clipped neatly about his neck and temples, his skin fresh colored, his body carefully but thriftily clothed. Smooth-skinned he was about the eyes and nose and mouth, unmarked by dissipation; and he stood straight; and by the set of his shoulders (not particularly deep or wide) you would infer that when he looked at you he would look straight. Pity, isn't it, that you never really can tell what a man is inside by drawing up your brief from what he is outside. There is always the heel of Achilles somewhere; trust the devil to find that.
Of course you wish to know forthwith who returned the ruby, and why. As our statesmen say, regarding any important measure for public welfare, the time is not yet ripe. Besides, the young man I am describing had never heard of the Nana Sahib's ruby, unless vaguely in some Sepoy Mutiny tale.
His expression at this moment was rather mournful. He was regretting the thirty shillings the week he had for several years drawn regularly in this shop. Inside there he had introduced the Raglan shirt, the Duke of Westminster four-in-hand, and the Churchill batwing collar. He longed to enter and plead for reinstatement, but his new-found pride refused to budge his legs door-ward. Thirty shillings, twelve for his "third floor back," and the rest for clothes and books and simple amusements. What a whirl he had been in, this past fortnight!
He pulled at his chin, shook his head and turned away. No, he simply could not do it. What! suffer himself to be laughed at behind his back? Impossible, a thousand times no! At the first news stand he bought two or three morning papers, and continued on to his lodgings. He must leave England at once, but the question was—How?
It was a comfortable room, as "third floor backs" go. He read the "want" advertisements carefully, and at length paused at a paragraph which seemed to suit his fancy perfectly. "Cabin stewards wanted—White Star Line—New York and Liverpool." He cut out the clipping, folded it and stored it away. Then he proceeded to pack up his belongings, not a very laborious affair.
Manuscripts. He riffled the pages ruefully. Sonnets and chant-royals and epics, fine and lofty in spirit; so fine indeed that they easily sifted through every editorial office in London. There was even a bulky romance. He had read so much about the enormous royalties which American authors received for their work, and English authors who were popular on the other side, that his ambition had been frenetically stirred. The fortunes such men as Maundering and Piffle and Drool made! And all he had accomplished so far had been the earnest support of the postal service. Far back at the beginning he had been unfortunate enough to sell a sonnet for ten shillings. Alack! You sell your first sonnet, you win your first hand at cards, and then the passion has you.
Poetry was a drug on the market. Nobody read it (or wrote it) these days; and any one who attempted to sell it was clearly mad. Oh, a jingle for Punch might pass, you know; something clever, with a snapper to it. But epic poetry? Sonnets? Why, didn't you know that there wasn't a magazine going that did not have some sub-editor who could whack out fourteen lines in fourteen minutes, whenever a page needed filling up? These things he had been told times without number. And Maundering, Piffle and Drool had long since cornered the romance market. The King's Highway had become No Thoroughfare.
America. He would go to the land of the brave (when occasion demanded) and the free (if you were imaginative). Having packed his trunk and valise, he departed for Liverpool. Besides, America was all that was left; he was at the end of his rope.
What a rollicking old fraud life was! Swung out of his peaceful orbit, by the legerdemain of death; no longer a humble steady star but a meteor; bumping as yet darkly against the planets; and then this monumental folly which had returned him to the old orbit but still in meteoric form, without peace or means of livelihood! An ass, indeed, if ever there was one.
He eventually arrived at his destination, lied blithely to the chief steward, and was assigned to the first-class cabins on the promenade deck, simply because his manner was engaging and his face pleasing to the eye. The sea? He had never been on it but once, and then only in a rowboat. A good sailor? Perhaps. Chicken and barley broths at eleven; the captain's table in the dining-saloon, breakfast, luncheon and dinner; cabin housekeeper and luggage man at the ports; and always a natty, stiffly starched jacket with a metal number; and "Yes, sir!" and "No, sir!" and "Thank you, sir!" his official vocabulary. Fine job for a poet!
It was all in the game he was going to play with fate. A chap who could sell flamingo ties to gentlemen with purple noses, and shirts with attached cuffs to coal-porters ought not to worry over such a simple employment as cabin-steward on board an ocean liner.
Early the next morning they left port, with only a few first-class passengers. The heavy travel was coming from the west, not going that way. The series of cabins under his stewardship were vacant. Therefore, with the thoroughness of his breed, he set about to learn "ship"; and by the time the first bugle for dinner blew, he knew port from starboard, boat-deck from main, and many other things, some unknown to the chief-steward who had made a hundred and twenty voyages on this very ship.
Beautiful weather; a mild southwest blow, with a moderate beam-sea; only the deck would come up smack against the soles of his boots in a most unexpected and aggravating manner. But after the third day out, he found his sea-legs and learned how to "lean." From two till five his time was his own, and a very good deal of this time he devoted to Henley and Morris and Walt Whitman, an ancient brier between his teeth and a canister of excellent tobacco at his elbow. Odd, isn't it, that an Englishman without his pipe is as incomplete as a Manx cat, which, as doubtless you know, has no tail. After all, does a Manx cat know that it is incomplete? Let me say, then, as incomplete as a small boy without pockets.
Toward his fellow stewards he was friendly without being companionable; and as they were of a decent sort, they let him go his way.
Several times during the voyage he opened his trunk and took out the manuscripts. Hang it, they weren't so bally bad. If he could still re-read them, after an hour or two with Henley, there must be some merit to them.
One afternoon he sat alone on the edge of his bunk. The sun was pouring into the porthole; intermittently it flashed over him. Suddenly and alertly he got up, looked out, listened intently, then stepped back into the cabin and locked the door. Again he listened. There was no sound except the steady heart-beats of the great engines below. He sat down sidewise, took out the chamois bag which hung around his neck, and poured the contents out on the blanket. Blue stones, rather dull at first; but ah! when the sun awoke the fires in them: blue as the flower o' the corn, the flame of burning sulphur. He gathered them up and slowly trickled them through his fingers. Sapphires, unset, beautiful as a woman's eyes. He replaced them in the chamois bag; and for the rest of the afternoon went about his affairs preoccupiedly, grave as a bishop under his miter. For, all said and done, he had much to be grave about.
In one of the panels of the partition which separated the cabin from the next, there was a crack. A human eye could see through it very well. And did.
My young poet had "signed on" under the name of Thomas Webb. It was not assumed. For years he had been known in the haberdashery as Webb. There was more to it, however; there was a tail to the kite. The English have an inordinate fondness for hyphens, for mother's family name and grandmother's family name and great-grandmother's, with the immediate paternal cognomen as a period. Thomas' full name was a rosary, if you like, of yeomen, of soldiers, of farmers, of artists, of gentle bloods, of dreamers. The latest transfusion of blood is always most powerful in effect upon the receiver; and as Thomas' father had died in penury for the sake of an idea, it was in order that the son should be something of a dreamer too. Poetry is but an expression of life seen through dreams.
His father had been a scholar, risen from the people; his mother had been gentle. From his seventh year the boy had faced life alone. He had never gone with the stream but had always found lodgment in the backwaters. There is no employment quieter, peacefuller than that of a clerk in a haberdashery. From Mondays till Saturdays, calm; a perfect environment for a poet. You would be surprised to learn of the vast army of poets and novelists and dramatists who dispense four-in-hands, collars, buttons and hosiery six days in the week and who go a-picnicking on the seventh, provided it does not rain.
Thomas had an idea. It was not a reflection of his lamented father's; it was wholly his own. He wanted to be loved. His father's idea had been to love; thus, humanity had laughed him into the grave. So it will be seen that Thomas' idea was the more sensible of the two.
The voyage was uneventful. Blue day followed blue day. When at length the great port of New York loomed in the distance, Thomas felt a thrilling in his spine. Perhaps yonder he might make his fortune; no matter what else he did, that remained to be accomplished, for he was a fortune-hunter, of the ancient type; that is, he expected to work for it. Shore leave would be his, and if during that time he found nothing, why, he was determined to finish the summer as a steward; and by fall he would have enough in wages and tips to give him a start in life. At present he could jingle but seven-and-six in his pocket; and jingle it frequently he did, to assure himself that it was not wearing away.
An important tug came bustling alongside. By the yellow flag he knew that it carried the quarantine officials, inspectors, and a few privileged citizens. Among others who came aboard Thomas noted a sturdy thick-chested man in a derby hat—bowler, Thomas called it. Quietly this man sought the captain and handed him what looked to Thomas like a cablegram. The captain read it and shook his head. Thomas overheard a little of their conversation.
"You're welcome to look about, Mr. Haggerty; but I don't think you'll find the person you seek."
"If you don't mind, I'll take a prowl. Special case, Captain. Mr. Killigrew thought perhaps I'd see a face I knew."
"Fine sapphires. A chance that they may come int' this port. They haven't yet."
"Your customs inspectors ought to be able to help you," observed the captain, hiding a smile. "Nothing but motes can slip through their fingers."
"Sometimes they're tripped up," replied Haggerty. "A case like this is due t' slip through. I'll take a look."
Thomas heard no more. A detective. Unobserved, he went down to his stuffy cabin, took off the chamois bag and locked it in his trunk. So long as it remained on board, it was in British territory.
The following day he went into the great city of man-made cliffs. He walked miles and miles. Naturally he sought the haberdashers along Broadway. No employment was offered him: for the reason that he failed to state his accomplishments. But he was in nowise discouraged. He would go back to Liverpool. The ship would sail with full cabin strength, and this trip there would be tips, three sovereigns at least, and maybe more, if his charges happened to be generous.
He tied the chamois bag round his neck again, and turned in. He was terribly tired and footsore. He slept fitfully. At half after nine he sat up, fully awake. His cabin-mate (whom he rather disliked) was not in his bunk. Indeed, the bunk had not been touched. Suddenly Thomas' hand flew to his breast. The chamois bag was gone!
Iambic and hexameter, farewell! In that moment the poet died in Thomas; I mean, the poet who had to dig his expressions of life out of ink-pots. Things boil up quickly and unexpectedly in the soul; century-old impulses, undreamed of by the inheritor; and when these bubble and spill over the kettle's lip, watch out. There is an island in the South Seas where small mud-geysers burst forth under the pressure of the foot. Fate had stepped on Thomas.
As he sprang out of his bunk he was a reversion: the outlaw in Lincoln-green, the Yeoman of the Guard, the bandannaed smuggler of the southeast coast. Quickly he got into his uniform. He went about this affair the right way, with foresight and prudence; for he realized that he must act instantly. He sought the purser, who was cordial.
"I'm not feeling well," began Thomas; "and the doctor is ashore. Where's there an apothecary's shop?"
"Two blocks straight out from the pier entrance. You'll see red and blue lights in the windows. Tummy?"
"I'm subject to dizzy spells. Where's Jameson?" Jameson was the surly cabin-mate.
"Quit. Gone over to the Cunard. Fool. Like a little money advanced? Here's a bill, five dollars."
"Thank you, sir." Twenty shillings, ten pence. "Doesn't Jameson take his peg a little too often, sir?"
"He's a blighter. Glad to get rid of him. Hurry back. And don't stop at Mike's or Johnny's,"—smiling.
"I never touch anything heavier than ale, sir." Mike's or Johnny's; it saved him the trouble of asking. Tippling pubs where stewards foregathered.
His uniform was his passport. Nobody questioned him as he passed the barrier at a dog-trot. Outside the smelly pier (sugar, coffee and spices, shipments from Killigrew and Company) he paused to send a short prayer to heaven. Then he approached a snoozing stevedore.
"Lead y' there, ol' scout!"
"No; tell me where it is. Here's a shilling."
Explicit directions followed; and away went Thomas at a dog-trot again: the lust to punish, maim or kill in his heart. He was not a university man; he had not played cricket at Lord's or stroked the crew from Leander; but he was island-born, a chap for cold tubbings, calisthenics and long tramps into the country on pleasant Sundays. Thomas was slender, but sound and hard.
Jameson was not at Mike's nor at Johnny's; but there were dozens of other saloons. He did not ask questions. He went in, searched, and strode out. In the lowest kind of a drinking dive he found his man. A great wave of dizziness swept over Thomas. When it passed, only the bandannaed smuggler remained, cautious, cunning, patient.
The quarry was alone in a side-room, drinking gin and smiling to himself. For an hour Thomas waited. His palms became damp with cold sweat and his knees wabbled, but not in fear. Four glasses of ale, sipped slowly, tasting of wormwood. In the bar-mirror he could watch every move made by Jameson. No one went in. He had evidently paid in advance for the bottle of gin. Thomas ordered his fifth glass of ale, and saw Jameson's head sink forward a little. Thomas' sigh almost split his heart in twain. Jameson's head went up suddenly, and with a drunken smile he reached for the bottle and poured out a stiff potion. He drank it neat.
Thomas wiped his palms on his sleeves and ordered a cigar.
"Lonesome?" asked the swart bartender. This good-looking chap was rather a puzzle to him. He wasn't waiting for anybody, and he wasn't trying to get drunk. Five ales in an hour and not a dozen words; just an ordinary Britisher who didn't know how to amuse himself in Gawd's own country.
Jameson's head fell upon his arms. With assured step Thomas walked toward the corridor which divided the so-called wine-rooms. At the end of the corridor was a door. He did not care where it led so long as it led outside this evil-smelling den. He found the room empty opposite Jameson's. He went in quietly. The shabby waiter followed him, soft-footed as a cat.
"A bottle of Old Tom," said Thomas.
The waiter nodded and slipped out. He saw the sleeper in the other room, and gently closed the door.
"Gink in number two wants a bottle o' gin. He's th' kind. Layer o' ale an' then his quart. Th' real souse."
"So that's his game, huh?" said the bartender. "How's th' gink in number four?"
"Dead t' th' world."
"Tip th' Sneak. There may be a chancet t' roll 'em both. Here y' are. Soak 'im two-fifty."
Half an hour longer Thomas waited. Then he rose and tiptoed to the door, drawing it back without the least sound. Jameson's had not latched. Taking a deep long breath (strange, how one may control the heart by this process!) Thomas crossed the corridor and entered the other room; entered prepared for any emergency. If Jameson awoke, so much the worse for him. The gods owe it to the mortals they keep in bondage to bestow a grain of luck here and there along the way to Elysium or Hades. His cabin-mate's stentorian breathing convinced the trespasser that it was the stupidest, heaviest kind of sleep.
For a moment he looked down at the man contemptuously. To have befuddled his brain at such a time! Or was it because the wretch knew that he, Thomas, would not dare cry out over his loss? He stepped behind the sleeping man. He wanted to fall upon him, beat him with his fists. Ah, if he had not found him!
The night, fortunately, was warm and thick. Jameson had carelessly thrown open his coat and vest. Underneath he wore the usual sailor-jersey. Thomas steeled his arms. With one hand he pulled the roll collar away from the man's neck and with the other sought for the string: sought in vain. The light, the four drab walls, the haze of tobacco smoke, all turned red.
"Where is it, you dog? Quick!" Thomas shook the man. "Where is it? Quick, or I'll throttle you!"
"Lemme 'lone!" Jameson sagged toward the table again.
Thomas bent him back ruthlessly and plunged a hand into the inside pocket of the man's coat. The touch of the chamois-bag burned like fire. He pulled it out and transferred it to his own pocket and made for the door. He did not care now what happened. Found! Woe to any one who had the ill-luck to stand between him and the exit.
Outside the door stood the shabby waiter, grinning cheerfully. He was accompanied by a hulking, shifty-eyed creature.
"Roll 'im, ol' sport? Caught in th' act, huh?" gibed the waiter.
Thomas had the right idea. He struck first. The waiter crashed against the wall. The hulking, shifty-eyed one fared worse. He went down with his face to the cracks in the floor. Thomas dashed for the exit.
Outside he found himself in a kind of court. He ran about wildly, like a rat in a trap. He plumped into the alley, accidentally. Down this he fled, into the street. A voice called out peremptorily to him to stop, but he went on all the faster, swift as a hare. He doubled and circled through this street and that until at last he came out into a broad, brilliant thoroughfare. An iron-pillared railway reared itself skyward and trains clamored past. Bloomsbury: millions of years and miles away! He would wake up presently, with the sunlight (when it shone) pouring into his room, and the bright geraniums on the outside window-sill bidding him good morning.
He was on the point of rushing up the station stairway, when he espied a cab at the far corner. A replica of a London cab, something which smacked of home; he could have hugged for sheer joy the bleary-eyed cabby who touched his rusty high hat.
"Free 's th' air, bo. Where to?"
"Pier 60, White Star Line. How much?"—quite his old-time self again.
"All right. And hurry!" Thomas climbed in. He was safe.
As the crow flies it was less than a ten-minutes' jog from that corner to Pier 60. Thomas had not gone far; he had merely covered a good deal of ground. Cabby drove about for three-quarters of an hour and then drew up before the pier.
Back to his cabin once more, weak as a swimmer who had breasted a strong tide. He opened his trunk and rammed the chamois-bag into the toe of one of his patent-leather boots. In the daytime he would wear it about his neck, but each night back into the shoe it must go. He flung himself on the bunk, not to sleep, but to think and wonder.
Meantime there was great excitement in the dive. The waiter was rocking his body, wailing and holding his jaw. His companion was sitting on the floor. In the wine-room two policemen and a thick-set, black-mustached man in a derby hat were asking questions.
"Robbed!" moaned Jameson.
The man in the derby hat shook him roughly. "Robbed o' what, y' soak?"
"Mike," said the man in the derby, "put th' darbies on th' Sneak. We'll get something for our trouble, anyhow. An' tell that waiter t' put th' brakes on his yawp. Bring him in here. Now, you, what's happened?"
"Why, the gink in uniform comes in . . ."
The bartender interrupted. "A gink dressed like a ship-steward comes in an' orders ale. Drinks five glasses. Goes out int' th' wine-room 'cross th' hall an' orders a bottle o' gin. An' next I hears Johnny howlin' murder. Frame-up, Mr. Haggerty. Nothin' t' do with it, hones' t' Gawd! Th' boss ain't here."
Jameson lurched toward the bartender. "Young lookin'? Red cheeks? 'Old himself like a sojer?"
"That's 'im," agreed the bartender.
"What were y' robbed of?" demanded Haggerty.
Jameson looked into a pair of chilling blue eyes. His own wavered drunkenly. "Money."
"Y' lie! What was it?" Haggerty seized Jameson by the collar and swung him about. "Hurry up!"
"I tell you, my money. Paid off t'dy. 'E knew it. Sly." Jameson had become almost sober. Out of the muddle one thing loomed clearly: he could not be revenged upon his cabin-mate without getting himself into deep trouble. Money; he'd stick to that.
"Who is he?"
"Name's Webb; firs'-class steward on th' Celtic. Damn 'im!"
"Lock this fool up till morning," said Haggerty. "I'll find out what he's been robbed of."
"British subject!" roared Jameson.
"Not t'night. Take 'im away. Think I saw th' fellow running as I came by. Yelled at him, but he could run some. Take 'im away. Something fishy about this. I'll call on my friend Webb in th' morning. There might be something in this."
And Haggerty paid his call promptly; only, Thomas saw him first. The morning sun lighted up the rugged Irish face. Thomas not only saw him but knew who he was, and in this he had the advantage of the encounter. One of the first things a detective has to do is to surprise his man, and then immediately begin to bullyrag and overbear him; pretend that all is known, that the game is up. Nine times out of ten it serves, for in the same ratio there is always a doubtful confederate who may "peach" in order to save himself.
Thomas never stirred from his place against the rail. He drew on his pipe and pretended to be stolidly interested in the sweating stevedores, the hoist-booms and the brown coffee-bags.
A hand fell lightly on his shoulder. Haggerty had a keen eye for a face; he saw weak spots, where a hundred other men would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. The detective always planned his campaign upon his interpretation of the face of the intended victim.
Thomas lowered his pipe and turned. "Yes, sir."
"Where were you between 'leven an' twelve last night?"
"What is that to you, sir?" (Yeoman of the Guard style.)
"What did Jameson take away from you?"
"Who are you, and what's your business with me?" The pipe-stem returned with a click to its ivory vise.
"My name is Haggerty, of th' New York detective force; American Scotland Yard, 'f that'll sound better. Better tell me all about it."
"I'm a British subject, on board a British ship."
"Nothing doing in m' lord style. When y' put your foot on that pier you become amenable t' th' laws o' th' United States, especially 'f you've committed a crime."
"Listen here. You went int' Lumpy Joe's, waited till Jameson got drunk, an' then you rolled him."
"Picked his pockets, if you want it blunt. Th' question is, did he take it from you 'r you from him? I can arrest you, Mr. Webb, British subject 'r not. 'S up t' you t' tell me th' story. Don't be afraid of me; I don't eat up men. All y' got t' do is t' treat me on th' level. You won't lose anything 'f you're honest."
"Come with me, sir." (The smuggler was, in his day, a match in cunning for any or all of His Majesty's coast-guards.)
Haggerty followed the young man down the various companionways. Instinctively he knew what was coming, the pith of the matter if not the details. Thomas pulled out his trunk, unlocked it, threw back the lid, and picked up an old leather box.
"Look at this, sir. It was my mother's. And I'd be a fine chap, would I not, to let a drunken scoundrel steal it and get away with it."
It was a Neapolitan brooch, of pink coral, surrounded by small pearls. Haggerty balanced it on his palm and appraised it at three or found hundred dollars. He glanced casually into the leather box. Some faded tin-types, some letters, a very old Bible, and odds and ends of a young man's fancy: Haggerty shrugged. It looked as if he had stumbled into a mare's-nest.
"He said you took money."
"Do y' want t' appear against him?"
"No. We sail at seven to-morrow. So long as he missed his shot, let him go."
"Why didn't y' lodge a complaint against him?"
"I'm not familiar with your laws, Mr. Haggerty. So I took the matter in my own hands."
"Don't do it again. Sorry t' trouble you. But duty's duty. An' listen. Always play your game above board; it pays."
Haggerty started to offer his hand, but the look in the gray eyes caused him to misdoubt and reconsider the impulse. So Thomas made his first mistake, which, later on, was to cost him dear. Coconnas shook hands with Caboche the headsman, and escaped the "question extraordinary." Truth is, Thomas was not an accomplished liar. He could lie to the detective, but he could not bring himself to shake hands on it.
On the way down the plank Haggerty mused: "An' I thought I had a hunch!"
Thomas sighed. "Play your game above board; it pays." Into what a labyrinth of lies he was wayfaring!
That same night, on the other side of the Atlantic, the ninth Baron of Dimbledon sailed for America to rehabilitate his fortunes. He did and he didn't.
Thomas was a busy man up to and long after the hour of sailing. His cabins were filled with about all the variant species of the race: two nervous married women with their noisy mismanaged children, three young men on a lark, and an actress who was paying her husband's expenses and gladly announced the fact over and through the partitions. Three bells tingled all day long, and the only thing that saved Thomas from the "sickbay" was the fact that the bar closed at eleven. And a rough passage added to his labors. No Henley this voyage, no comfy loafing about the main-deck in the sunshine. A busy, miserable, dejected young man, who cursed his folly and yet clung to it with that tenacity which makes prejudice England's first-born.
Night after night, stretched out wearily on his bunk, the sordid picture of Lumpy Joe's returned to him. By a hair's breadth! It was always a source of amazement to recall how quickly and shrewdly his escape had been managed. He felt reasonably safe. Jameson would never dare tell what he knew, to incriminate himself for the sake of revenge. To have got the best of him and to have pulled the wool over the eyes of a keen American detective!
In Liverpool he deliberately threw away a full sovereign in motion-pictures and music-halls. But he drank nothing, not even his customary ale. Not so long ago he had tasted his first champagne; very expensive, something more than two hundred pounds. Stupid ass! And yet . . . The very life he had always been longing for, dreaming of, behind his counters: to be free, to rove at will, to seek adventure.
"Then," said Sir Tristram, "I will fight with you unto the uttermost." "I grant," said Sir Palomides, "for in a better quarrel keep I never to fight, for and I die of your hands, of a better knight's hands may I not be slain." . . .
Off for America again; and the Book of Marvelous Adventures, to be opened wide by a pair of Irish blue eyes, deep as the sea, glancing as the sunlight on its crests.
"You are my steward, I believe?"
In his soul of souls Thomas hoped so. "Yes, miss—indeed, yes, if you occupy this cabin."
"Here are the tickets"; and the young lady signed the slip of paper he gave her: Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Killigrew, Miss Killigrew and maid. "I shall probably keep you very busy." There was a twinkle in her eyes, but he was English and did not see it.
"That is what I am here for, miss." He smiled reassuringly.
"Never ask my father if he wishes tea and toast"—gravely.
"Yes, miss"—with honest gravity. Thomas knew nothing of women, young or old. With the habits and tastes of the male biped he was tolerably familiar. He was to learn.
"Hot water-bottles for my mother every night, and a pot of chocolate for myself. I shall always have my breakfast early in the saloon. I'm a first-rate sailor."
A rush, a whir.
"Kitty, you darling! They have put us on the other side of the ship."
Thomas was genuinely glad of it. With a goddess and a nymph to wait upon, heaven knew how many broken dishes he'd have to account for. Never in the park, never after the matinees, never in all wide London, had he seen two such lovely types: Titian and Greuse.
"No!" said the Greuse.
"Stupid mistake at the booking-office," replied the Titian. "Come up on deck. They are putting off."
"Just a moment. Put the small luggage, Mr. . . ."
"Mr. Webb. Put the small luggage on the lounge. Never mind the straps. That is all."
The two young women hurried off. Thomas stared after them, his brows bent in a mixture of perplexity, dazzlement and diffidence.
"A very good-looking steward."
"Kitty, you little wretch!"
"Why, he is good-looking."
"Princes, dukes, waiters, cabbies, stewards; all you do is look at them, and they become slaves. You've more mischief in you than a dozen kittens."
"I have met cabbies whom I much prefer to certain dukes."
"But I've a young man picked out for you. He's an artist."
"Good night!" murmured Kitty. "If there is one kind of person in the world dad considers wholly useless and incompetent, it's an artist or a poet."
"But this artist makes fifteen thousand and sometimes twenty thousand the year."
"Then he's no artist. What is his name?"
"Forbes, J. Mortimer Forbes."
"Oh. The pretty-cover man."
"My dear, he is one of the nicest young men in New York. His family is one of the best, and he goes everywhere. And but for his kindness. . . ."
"Some day I'll tell you the story. Here we go! Good-by, England!"
"Good-by, sapphires!" said Kitty, so low that the other did not hear her.
At dinner Thomas was called to account by the chief steward for permitting his thumb to connect with the soup. But what would you, with Titian and Greuse smiling a soft "Thank you!" for everything you did for them?
* * * * * *
"Good night, Kittibudget."
Crawford smiled after the blithe, buoyant figure as it swung confidently down the deck.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," mused Killigrew, looking across the rail at the careening stars.
"That child. I can't harness her."
"Somebody's bound to"—prophetically.
"It's got to be a whole man, or he'll wish he'd never been born. She's had her way so long that she's spoiled."
"Not a bit of it."
"Yes, she is. I told her not to wear those sapphires that night. And, by the way, I've been hoping they'd turn up like that ruby of yours. How do you account for that?"
The coal of Crawford's cigar waxed and waned and the ash lengthened.
"I've no doubt that you've been mighty curious since that morning. Perhaps you read the tale in the newspapers. I know of only one man who would return the Nana Sahib's ruby. Sentiment; for I believe the poor devil was really fond of me. A valet. With me for ten years. He was really my comrade; always my right-hand on my exploration trips; back-boned, fearless, reliable in a pinch, and a scholar in a way; though I can't imagine how and where he picked up his learning. He saved my life at least twice by his quick wit. In those days I was something of a stick; never went out. I hired him upon his word and because he looked honest. And he was for ten years. He gave his name as Mason, said he was born in central New York. We got along without friction of any sort. And I still miss him. Stole a hundred thousand dollars' worth of gems; hid them in the heels of my old shoes and nearly got away with them. Haggerty, the detective, thought for weeks that I was the man. I still believe that I was the innocent cause of Mason's relapse; for Haggerty was certain that somewhere in the past Mason had been a criminal. You see, I had a peculiar fad. I used to buy up old safes and open them for the sport of it. Crazy idea, but I found a good deal of amusement in it."
"You don't say!" gasped Killigrew, who had never heard of this phase before.
"It's my belief that Mason got his inspiration from watching me. I am devilish sorry."
"Then you believe that he is up to his old tricks again?"
"Yes,"—reluctantly. "The man who took my wife's ruby, took your daughter's sapphires. It needed a clever mind to conceive such a coup. Three other carriages were entered, with more or less success. In a dense fog; a needle in a haystack. And they'll never find him."
"It's up to you to put the detectives on the right track."
"I suppose I'll have to do it."
"If he returns to America he'll be caught. I'll give Haggerty the tip."
"I have my doubts of Mason committing any such folly. He picked up a small fortune that night. Strange mix-up."
"Here, try one of these," urged Killigrew, as the butt of Crawford's cigar went overboard.
Thomas moved away from the ventilator. Mix-up, indeed! He stole down to the promenade deck, where the stewardess informed him that Miss Killigrew had just ordered her chocolate. He flew to the kitchens. It was a narrow escape. To have been found wanting the first night out!
"Come in," said a voice in answer to his knock.
He set the tray down on the stool, his heart insurgent and his fingers all thumbs. He might live to be a steward eighty years old, but he never would get over the awe, the embarrassment of these invasions by night. Each time he saw a woman in her peignoir or kimono he felt as though he had committed a sacrilege. True, he understood their attitude; he was merely a serving machine and for the time wiped off the roster of mankind.
A long blue coat of silk brocade enveloped Kitty from her throat to her sandals; sleeves which fell over her hands; buttoned by loops over corded knots. An experienced traveler could have told him that it was the peculiar garment which any self-respecting Chinaman would wear who was in mourning for his grandfather. Kitty wore it because of its beauty alone.
"Thank you," she said, as Thomas went out backward, court style. Kitty smiled across at her maid who was arranging the combs and brushes preparatory to taking down her mistress' hair. "He looked as if he were afraid of something, Celeste."
Celeste smiled enigmatically. "Ma'm'selle shoult haff been born in Pariss."
This was translatable, or not, as you pleased. Kitty sipped the chocolate and found it excellent. At length she dismissed the maid, switched off the lights, and then remembered that there was no water in the carafe. She rang.
Thomas replied so promptly that he could not have been farther off than the companionway. "You rang, miss?"
"Yes, Webb. Please fill this carafe."
"Is it possible that it was empty, miss?"
"I used it and forgot to ring for more."
All this in the dark.
Thomas hurried away, wishing he could find some magic spring on board. For what purpose he could not have told.
As for Kitty, she remained standing by the door, profoundly astonished.
Third day out.
Kitty smiled at the galloping horizon; smiled at the sunny sky; smiled at the deck-steward as he served the refreshing broth; smiled at the tips of her sensible shoes, at her hands, at her neighbors: until Mrs. Crawford could contain her curiosity no longer.
"Kitty Killigrew, what have you been doing?"
"Well, going to do?"—shrewdly.
Kitty gazed at her friend in pained surprise, her blue eyes as innocent as the sea—and as full of hidden mysterious things. "Good gracious! can't a person be happy and smile?"
"Happy I have no doubt you are; but I've studied that smile of yours too closely not to be alarmed by it."
"Well, what does it say?"
Kitty did not reply to this, but continued smiling—at space this time.
On the ship crossing to Naples in February their chairs on deck had been together; they had become acquainted, and this acquaintance had now ripened into one of those intimate friendships which are really sounder and more lasting than those formed in youth. Crawford had heard of Killigrew as a great and prosperous merchant, and Killigrew had heard of Crawford as a millionaire whose name was very rarely mentioned in the society pages of the Sunday newspapers. Men recognize men at once; it doesn't take much digging. Before they arrived in Naples they had agreed to take the Sicilian trip together, then up Italy, through France, to England. The scholar and the merchant at play were like two boys out of school; the dry whimsical humor of the Scotsman and the volatile sparkle of the Irishman made them capital foils.
Killigrew dropped his Rodney Stone.
"Say, Crawford," he began, "after seeing ten thousand saints in ten thousand cathedrals, since February, I'd give a hundred dollars for a ringside ticket to a scrap like that one,"—indicating the volume on his knee.
Crawford lay back and laughed.
"Well," said his wife, with an amused smile, "why don't you say it?"
"'So would I!'"
"Men are quite hopeless," sighed Mrs. Killigrew, when the laughter had subsided.
"You oughtn't object to a good shindy, Molly," slyly observed her husband. "You'll never forgive me that black eye."
"I'll never forgive the country you got it in,"—grimly. "But what's the harm in a good scrap between two husky fellows, trained to a hair to slam-bang each other?"
"It isn't refined, dad," said Kitty.
He sent a searching glance at her; he never was sure when that girl was laughing. "Fiddle-sticks! For four months now I've been shopping every day with you women, and you can't tell me prize-fights are brutal."
Crawford applauded gently.
"By the way, Crawford, you know something about direct charity." Killigrew threw back his rug and sat up. "I've got an idea. What's the use of giving checks to hospitals and asylums and colleges, when you don't know whether the cash goes right or wrong? I'm going to let Molly here start a home-bureau to keep her from voting; a lump sum every year to give away as she pleases. I'm strong for giving boys college education. Smooths 'em out; gives them a start in life; that is, if they are worth anything at the beginning. Like this: back the boy and screw up his honor and interest by telling him that you expect to be paid back when the time comes. There's no better charity in the world than making a man of a boy, making him want to stand on his own feet, independent. When you help inefficient people, you throw your money away. What do you think of the idea?"
"A first-rate one. I'd like to come in."
"No; this is all my own and Molly's. But how'll I start her off?"
"Get an efficient young man to act as private secretary; a fairly good accountant; no rich man's son, but some one who has had a chance to observe life. Make him a buffer between Mrs. Killigrew and the whining cheats. And above all, no young man who has social entree to your house. That kind of a private secretary is always a fizzle."
"Any one in mind?"
"I have," said Kitty, rising and going toward the companion-ladder to the lower decks.
"What now?" demanded Killigrew.
"Let her be; Kitty has a sensible head on her shoulders, for all her foolery." Mrs. Killigrew laid a restraining hand on her husband's arm.
But Mrs. Crawford smiled a replica of that smile which had aroused her curiosity in regard to Kitty. And then her face grew serious.
Kitty had a mind like her father's. Her ideas were seldom nebulous or slow in forming. They sprang forth, full grown, like those mythological creatures: Minerva was an idea of Jove's, as doubtless Venus was an idea of Neptune's. Men with this quality become captains-general of armies or of money-bags. In a man it signifies force; in a woman, charm.
Kitty searched diligently and found the object of her quest on the main-deck, starboard, leaning against one of the deck supports and reading from a book which lay flat on the broad teak rail, in a blue shadow. The sea smiled at Kitty and Kitty smiled at the sea. Men are not the only adventurers; they have no monopoly on daring. And what Kitty proposed doing was daring indeed, for she did not know into what dangers it might eventually lead her.
Thomas looked up. "You are wanting me, miss?"
"If you are not too busy."
"Really, no. I have been reading." He closed the book, loose-leafed from frequent perusals. "I am at your service."
"Do you read much, Mr. Webb?"
The reiteration of the prefix to his name awakened him to the marvelous fact that for the present he was no longer the machine; she was recognizing the man.
"Perhaps, for a man in my station, I read too much, Miss Killigrew."
Kitty's scarlet lips stirred ever so slightly. It was the first time he had added the name to the prefix: he in his turn was recognizing the woman. And this rather pleased her, for she liked to be recognized.
"May I ask what it is you are reading?"
He offered the book to her. Morte d'Arthur. Kitty's eyebrows, a hundred years or more ago, would have stirred to tender lyrics the quills of Prior and Lovelace and Suckling: arched when interested, a funny little twist to the inner points when angered, and when laughter possessed her. . . . Let Thomas indite the sonnet! Just now they were widely arched.
"I am very fond of the book," explained Thomas diffidently. "I love the pompous gallantry of these fairy chaps. How politely they used to hack each other into pieces!"
"Are you by chance a university man?"
"No. I am self-educated, if one may call it that. My father was a fellow at Trinity. For myself, I have always had to work."
"Do you like your present occupation?"
"It was the best I could find." How he would have liked to throw discretion to the winds and tell her the whole miserable story!
"Are you good at accounting?"
"Fairly." What was all this about? He began to riffle the leaves of the book, restively.
"Could you tell an honest man from a dishonest one?"
"I believe so." Thomas had eyebrows, too, but he did not know how to use them properly. Tell an honest man from a dishonest one, forsooth!
Kitty found the situation less easy than she had anticipated. The more questions she asked, the more embarrassed she grew; and it angered her because there was no clear reason why she should become embarrassed. And she also remarked his uneasiness. However, she went on determinedly.
"Have you ever had any contact with real poverty?"
"Yes,"—close-lipped. "Pardon me, Miss Killigrew, but . . ."
"Just a moment, Mr. Webb," she interrupted. "I dare say my questions seem impertinent, but they have a purpose back of them. My mother and I are looking for a private secretary for a charitable concern which we are going to organize shortly. We desire some one who is educated, who will be capable of guarding us from persons not worthy of benefactions, who will make recommendations, seek into the affairs of those considered worthy. We shall, of course, expect to find room for you. It will not be a chatter-tea-drinking affair. You will have the evenings to yourself and all of Sundays. The salary will be two hundred a month."
"Pounds?" gasped Thomas.
"Oh, no; dollars. I do not expect your answer at this moment. You must have time to think it over."
"It is not necessary, Miss Killigrew."
"On the contrary, I accept with a good deal of gratitude. On condition," he added gravely.
"You will ask me no questions regarding my past."
Kitty looked squarely into his eyes and he returned the glance steadily and calmly.
"Very well; I accept the condition,"
Thomas was mightily surprised.
He had put forward this condition, perfectly sure that she would refuse to accept it. He could not understand.
"You accept that condition?"
"Yes." Having gone thus far with her plot, Kitty would have died rather than retreated; Irish temperament.
Thomas was moved to a burst of confidence. "I know that I am poor, and to the best of my belief, honest. Moreover, perhaps I should be compelled by the exigencies of circumstance to leave you after a few months. I am not a rich man, masquerading for the sport of it; I am really poor and grateful for any work. It is only fair that I should tell you this much, that I am running away from no one. Beyond the fact that I am the son of a very great but unknown scholar, a farmer of mediocre talents who lost his farm because he dreamed of humanity instead of cabbages, I have nothing to say." He said it gravely, without pride or veiled hauteur.
"That is frank enough," replied Kitty, curiously stirred. "You will not find us hard task-masters. Be here this afternoon at three. My father will wish to talk to you. And be as frank with him as you have been with me."
She smiled and nodded brightly, and turned away. He had a glimpse of a tan shoe and a slim tan-silk ankle, which poised birdlike above the high doorsill; and then she vanished into the black shadow of the companionway. She afterward confessed to me that her sensation must have been akin to that of a boy who had stolen an apple and beaten the farmer in the race to the road.
We all make the mistake of searching for our drama, forgetting that it arrives sooner or later, unsolicited.
Bewitched. Thomas should have been the happiest man alive, but the devil had recruited him for his miserables. Her piquant face no longer confronting and bewildering him, he saw this second net into which he had permitted himself to be drawn. As if the first had not been colossal enough! Where would it all end? Private secretary and two hundred the month—forty pounds—this was a godsend. But to take her orders day by day, to see her, to be near her. . . . Poverty-stricken wretch that he was, he should have declined. Now he could not; being a simple Englishman, he had given his word and meant to abide by it. There was one glimmer of hope; her father. He was a practical merchant and would not permit a man without a past (often worse than a man with one) to enter his establishment.
Thomas was not in love with Kitty. (Indeed, this isn't a love story at all.) Stewards, three days out, are not in the habit of falling in love with their charges (Maundering and Drool notwithstanding). He was afraid of her; she vaguely alarmed him; that was all.
For seven years he had dwelt in his "third floor back"; had breakfasted and dined with two old maids, their scrawny niece, and a muscular young stenographer who shouted militant suffrage and was not above throwing a brickbat whenever the occasion arrived. There was a barmaid or two at the pub where he lunched at noon; but chaff was the alpha and omega of this acquaintance. Thus, Thomas knew little or nothing of the sex.
The women with whom he conversed, played the gallant, the hero, the lover (we none of us fancy ourselves as rogues!) were those who peopled his waking dreams. She was La Belle Isoude, Elaine, Beatrice, Constance; it all depended upon what book he had previously been reading. It is when we men are confronted with the living picture of some one of our dreams of them that women cease to dwell in the abstract and become issues, to be met with more or less trepidation. Back among some of his idle dreams there had been a Kitty, blue-eyed, black-haired, slender and elfish.
Kitty sat down in her chair. "Well," she said, "I have found him."
"Found whom?" asked Mrs. Crawford.
"The private secretary."
"What?" Killigrew swung his feet to the deck. "What the dickens have you been doing now? Who is it?"
"Well, if that . . ." began Killigrew belligerently.
"Dad, either mother and I act as we please, or you may attend to the home-bureau yourself. Mother, it was agreed and understood that I should select any employee we might happen to need."
"It was, my dear."
"Very good. I want some one who will attend to the affairs honestly and painstakingly. There must be no idler about the house; and any young man . . ."
"Wouldn't an old one do?" suggested Killigrew.
"Whose set ideas would clash constantly with ours. And any young man we know would idle and look on the whole affair as a fine joke. I've had a talk with Webb. He's not a university man, but he's educated. I found him reading Morte d'Arthur."
"He became a steward because he could find nothing else to do at the present time. He has been poor, and I dare say he has known the pinch of poverty. You said only this morning, dad, that he was the most attentive steward you had ever met on shipboard. Besides, there is a case in point. Our butler was a steward before you engaged him, six years ago."
Killigrew began to smile. "How much have you offered him as a salary?"
"Two hundred a month, to be paid out of the funds."
"Janet," said Crawford, "it's a good thing I'm married, or I'd apply for the post myself."
"All right," agreed Killigrew; "a bargain's a bargain."
"A wager's a wager," thought Kitty.
"If you wake up some fine morning and find the funds gone . . ."
"Mother and I will attend to all checks, such as they are."
"Kitty, any day you say I'll take you into the firm as chief counsel. But before I approve of your selection, I'd like to have a talk with our friend Webb."
"He expects it. You are to see him on the main-deck at three this afternoon."
"Molly, how long have we been married?"
"Thirty years, Daniel."
"How old is Kitty?"
"Twenty-two," answered Mrs. Killigrew relentlessly.
"Well, I was going to say that I've learned more about the Killigrew family in these four months of travel than in all those years together."
"Something more than ornaments," suggested Kitty dryly.
"Yes, indeed," replied her father amiably.
And when he returned to the boat-deck that afternoon for tea (which, by the way, he never drank, being a thorough-going coffee merchant), he said to Kitty: "You win on points. If Webb doesn't pan out, why, we can discharge him. I'll take a chance at a man who isn't afraid to look you squarely in the eyes."
At the precise time when Kitty retired and Thomas went aft for his good night pipe—eleven o'clock at sea and nine in New York—Haggerty found himself staring across the street at an old-fashioned house. Like the fisherman who always returns to the spot where he lost the big one, the detective felt himself drawn toward this particular dwelling. Crawford did not live there any more; since his marriage he had converted it into a private museum. It was filled with mummies and cartonnages, ancient pottery and trinkets.
What a game it had been! A hundred thousand in precious gems, all neatly packed away in the heels of Crawford's old shoes! And where was that man Mason? Would he ever return? Oh, well; he, Haggerty, had got his seven thousand in rewards; he was living now like a nabob up in the Bronx. He had no real cause to regret Mason's advent or his escape. Yet, deep in his heart burned the chagrin of defeat: his man had got away, and half the game (if you're a true hunter) was in putting your hand on a man's shoulder and telling him to "Come along."
He crossed the street and entered the, alley and gazed up at the fire-escape down which Mason had made his escape. What impelled the detective to leap up and catch the lower bars of the ground-ladder he could not have told you. He pulled himself up and climbed to the window.
Haggerty had nerves like steel wires, but a slight shiver ran down his spine. Open, and Crawford yet on the high seas. He waited, listening intently. Not a sound of any sort came to his ears. He stepped inside courageously and slipped with his back to the wall, where he waited, holding his breath.
Click! It seemed to come from his right.
"Come out o' that!" he snarled. "No monkey-business, or I'll shoot."
He flashed his pocket-lamp toward the sound, and aimed.
A blow on the side of the head sent the detective crashing against a cartonnage, and together the quick and the dead rolled to the floor. Instinctively Haggerty turned on his back, aimed at the window and fired.
When the constellation, which was not included among the accepted theories of Copernicus, passed away, Haggerty sat up and rubbed the swelling over his ear, tenderly yet grimly. Next, he felt about the floor for his pocket-lamp. A strange spicy dust drifted into his nose and throat, making him sneeze and cough. A mummy had reposed in the overturned cartonnage and the brittle bindings had crumbled into powder. He soon found the lamp, and sent its point of vivid white light here and there about the large room.
Pursuit of his assailant was out of the question. Haggerty was not only hard of head but shrewd. So he set about the accomplishment of the second best course, that of minute and particular investigation. Some one had entered this deserted house: for what? This, Haggerty must find out. He was fairly confident that the intruder did not know who had challenged him; on the other hand, there might be lying around some clue to the stranger's identity.
Was there light in the house, fluid in the wires? If so he would be saved the annoyance of exploring the house by the rather futile aid of the pocket-lamp, which stood in need of a fresh battery. He searched for the light-button and pressed it, hopefully. The room, with all its brilliantly decorated antiquities, older than Rome, older than Greece, blinded Haggerty for a space.
"Ain't that like these book chaps?" Haggerty murmured. "T' go away without turning off th' meter!"
The first thing Haggerty did was to scrutinize the desk which stood near the center of the room. A film of dust lay upon it. Not a mark anywhere. In fact, a quarter of an hour's examination proved to Haggerty's mind that nothing in this room had been disturbed except the poor old mummy. He concluded to leave that gruesome object where it lay. Nobody but Crawford would know how to put him back in his box, poor devil. Haggerty wondered if, after a thousand years, some one would dig him up!